Names Make the Book
"Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea."
So reads the opening sentence of a recent novel. Any guesses of the setting and tone of the book?
Yes, you have stepped into a satiric vision of Victorian England. You can expect stereotypically prim conventions of the period to serve as foils, painting the more outrageous plot elements in sharp relief. The references to dumbwaiters and "taking tea" help place you in the book's landscape, but it's the names -- Sophronia and the redoubtable Mrs. Barnaclegoose -- that really establish the worldview.
The novel in question is Etiquette & Espionage, a ladylike steampunk take on the boarding-school-as-alternate-reality genre that Harry Potter kicked off. The love of names seen in this book almost makes me forgive author Gail Carriger for naming her previous "Victorian" heroine Alexia.
Well-chosen character names help set the scene in innumerable books, from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling. (Conversely, I find that careless naming is often a warning sign of sloppy writting to follow.) But occasionally, the character names go even further, becoming...well, characters. How about the non-names of the anonymous narrator in the opening of Mark Helprin's Memoir From Antproof Case ?
"Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name. Nor are Baby Supine, Euclid Cherry, Franklyn Nuts or any of the other aliases that, now and then over the years, I have been forced to adopt."
Care to share your favorites? What literary character names have stuck in your mind, shaping your memory of the books as surely as the characters themselves do?